Dragon Age II: Yes, I Played It Last
A few months ago, my girlfriend bought me Dragon Age: Inquisition as a gift. Some sixty hours later, I completed it! Mostly. I may not have finished every single side-quest. I had already played Origins but I’d skipped Dragon Age II. So many bad things had been said of Dragon Age II. I was late getting into Origins, in all honesty. As a carer on a low-income, I’m mostly inclined to stock up on video games during Steam or Origin sales around Xmas time. So when I would tell people I was playing through Origins, the response was universal.
“Great game!” They would say, followed by “But skip the sequel.”
However, after having so much fun with Inquisition, and having bought Dragon Age II on the cheap some time ago, I decided I wanted more from the world of Thedas and loaded it up.
So Far, So Bioware
If you’ve played Bioware games, such as Mass Effect or other Dragon Age titles, then you probably have an inkling of what you’re in for. They’re RPGs, although of the aforementioned series’, only Origins and the original Mass Effect hold true to the bulk of RPG conventions. Mass Effect 2, and onwards, along with Dragon Age II and onwards, subvert the usual RPG mechanics. They’re still RPGs but not as RPG-like as something like Skyrim. I suppose you could liken it to how World of Warcraft isn’t quite as “MMORPG-y” these days.
Effectively, it’s an interactive movie with your player-character as the star. In Dragon Age II, you play Hawke. You get to choose your first name but everyone else will refer to you as Hawke, or later, Champion – and sometimes, bitch. Unlike Origins and Inquisition, you cannot choose a race to play as, nor do you have any choice over backstory as per Origins or the Mass Effect series. You are Hawke, you are a member of the once-respected Amell Family and this game charts Hawke’s rise from refugee fleeing the blight to Champion of Kirkwall. All of this is framed by the storytelling of Varric Tethras who is being interrogated by Cassandra Pentaghast, leader of the Seekers of Truth. Cassandra plays a prominent role in Inquisition.
Lack of Choice
The lack of customisation regarding race and background was the first thing that drew people’s ire about Dragon Age II. I understand that. In World of Warcraft there are three races I’ve never played. Goblin, because I just can’t be bothered. Gnome, because I think they’re stupid. Human, because it’s a fantasy game and I find humans boring. My first choice in Origins and Inquisition was a Dalish Elf. In Skyrim I also played an elf. In fact, I am inclined to play elves whenever the possibility arises. Both my “mains” in WoW are Blood Elves. Yes, okay, elves are just humans with pointy ears but still.
In Dragon Age II, you’re a human, so deal with it. You can choose your appearance, but that’s about it. It doesn’t take too long to get accustomed to this. And I like Hawke, overall. You get to choose Hawke’s personality from diplomatic/helpful, sarcastic or ruthless/aggressive. You no longer have to stick skill/talent points in a specific tree to unlock Persuade/Intimidate options. They’re automatically unlocked based on “Dominant Personality”. What’s less obvious, however, is that your dominant personality is set based on the very first dialogue choice you make. You can change that personality, and there’s a “shrink” that occurs at the end of each act but it’s not obvious or easy from the get-go so you might feel that you’re making lots of aggressive comments but because you said something nice early on, you’re classed as a helpful person.
Before I get into this, I like Dragon Age II. I’ll talk about why later. Yet there are some things that I dislike.
Firstly, I’m not happy how you lose one of your companions at the end of Act I regardless of what you do. I won’t go into the who or the why. It can be worse, you can actually get them killed but I could deal with that. I’m just not happy with having a companion taken away from me regardless of what decisions I make. I should be fair, it does make sense in the story that this happens and this is mostly a grumble, grumble. What rubs me about this particular character is that they’re useful to have and I found them likeable.
In the event they die, you can argue it’s because of a mistake you’ve made but it’s also just as much about you not having made a single, specific-decision about your team for a certain mission. This is a little unfair on the player. Losing characters in Bioware games is perfectly normal. Regardless of your choices, at least one character dies on Virmire in Mass Effect. You can lose characters in Origins and in ME2 you can theoretically lose your whole team. You can play with this particular character again though, if you happen to buy the Legacy and/or Mark of the Assassin DLC (and you haven’t got them killed) and they may join you during the final mission depending on your choices.
Speaking of DLC…
For Inquisition, Bioware announced there would be no DLC characters because people don’t like them. I disagree. I’ve no issue with DLC characters. I have issues with Day One DLC characters who happen to be important to the story in some way. For instance, Javik (or Prothy the Prothean) in Mass Effect 3. He’s not a minor character. At launch, an extra £10 to get the full Mass Effect 3 experience. That’s taking the piss. In contrast, there’s Kasumi from Mass Effect 2. You don’t really miss much by not having her. She comes with a pretty fun mission, and she’s an extra person who can survive the vent section of the Suicide Mission. Much the same could be said for Shale, acquired as DLC for Origins. Somewhat useful to have. No lasting impact on the story without, as Wynne’s presence in Awakenings attests to.
Vael here was Day One DLC. He’s an archer, so he’s one of only two default options for non-spellcasting ranged DPS as Isabela can only be specced ranged with mods, and you wouldn’t really want to do that anyway. From a storyline point of view, he is actually quite important as your choices in game effect whether he ascends to rule Starkhaven. You could even end up in a situation where Vael leaves to raise an army, potentially to attack Kirkwall. Arguably, he’s not as important to Dragon Age II as Javik was to Mass Effect 3, but I think there’s a damn good argument to be made that his presence as DLC is money-grabbing at its worst.
Gameplay: Good and Bad
I should note that I played on normal. I’m not a fantastic gamer and games like these are played for the story rather than a challenge. People who play on hard or nightmare level are likely to have a different experience. Also, Rana Hawke was a warrior using a two-handed weapon. Another point to note is that I played the PC version. I think that just about covers the narrow-scope at which I come at this from.
Combat is less tactical than Dragon Age: Origins, at least on normal. I rarely needed to hop onto other characters to get them to do specific things and could mostly focus on just being Hawke. Like Origins, you unlock Tactics options as you progress which allows you to further automate your companions actions. For example, you can tell a character to use a health potion if their health is reduced to 25% or less. Whereas in Origins, you would encounter smallish groups of mobs which would usually require some level of micromanagement, this isn’t quite so necessary in Dragon Age II. Indeed, mobs don’t tend to hit hard and can be hacked down quickly. What’s changed, is the number of them.
Mobs now come in larger groups. What’s more is that they also come in waves. Once you’ve dealt with one wave, a second wave will spawn and attack from two or more sides. This makes things more chaotic and less tactical. It can also make some things deeply frustrating. During one mission, for example, you have to track down a companion who has been taken prisoner in the city. As you work through the city, you might encounter so many hordes of mobs that it starts to piss you off.
Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!
Combat is also much faster in Dragon Age II. It has more of an arcade-like feel to it. If you played warrior two-hander in Origins, you’ll have gotten used to the slow-swinging and generally lumbering feel. Hawke, by comparison, can swing a greatsword larger than herself around as though she were swinging a cat. And not a very big cat. She can run, charging into enemies, hit a whirlwind and take down three or four in a couple of hits. On normal, at least, you’re only actually likely to die if you get so engrossed in powering through waves of enemies that you completely forget that your companions are being mugged by a group that spawned in on the other side of the map.
I don’t really mind this faster combat but I would rather have slower combat and less spawning waves. However, I cannot deny that it is simply fun to be the big badass who charges into a bunch of mobs and obliterates them. That said, seeing weak mobs effectively vapourised with my sword is a little on the cartoonishly gratuitous side.
Most of Dragon Age II is simplified, continuing Bioware’s trend towards less RPG-like RPG’s. Talent trees are a little easier to understand and offer slightly more customisation from Origins, no longer forcing you to go through each tree to find out what abilities you want to invest towards. Gear is now rated on a star-level comparative to your level, with 2-stars being a baseline. I think of it in WoW terms, with 1-star being grey/trash, 2 being white/common, 3 being green/uncommon, 4 being blue/rare and 5 being purple/epic. As you level, the star level scales downwards so something that was 5-star at level 5 will likely be 1-star (or even 0-stars) at level 20.
You no longer have to worry too much about your companion’s gear, either. They have basic armour which scales as they level. You can acquire upgrades for them. With some exceptions, you can give them other items such as weapons, rings and amulets. Some people might not like this change, and it is unfortunately impossible to stop Isabela wandering around dressed as she is but it does smooth out the process a little. One major advantage is that you no longer feel that a character for who you haven’t had decent drops would be too much of a liability to take with you on quests.
Environments and the Death of Long Dungeons
This game is much smaller scale than Origins. The vast majority of quests are handled in the city of Kirkwall. There’s several districts you visit and a few sub-levels that are opened when necessary. There are some quests in the surrounding areas but nothing like venturing through Ferelden in Origins. This is very much all about Kirkwall. Personally, I quite like the idea but not the execution. Bioware reuses areas too often. The Wounded Coast, for example, is a pain in the arse that you have to keep revisiting. The sub-levels are very much like the pre-fab buildings from Mass Effect 1 which use the same maps over, and over, and over. They should have replaced every loading screen with a message apologising for the rushed development.
Kirkwall as a city is fine. The areas might be quite small but there is variety between Lowtown, Hightown, The Gallows etc. It’s the fact that whenever you leave Kirkwall, or whenever you end up in a sub-level of Kirkwall, you’re seeing the same re-used environments, the same caves etc. even when they’re supposed to be different places. It’s cheap and it’s lazy. However, one change on that note that I appreciated, although others may not, is that the multi-hour dungeons are gone. One of the things that I really disliked about Origins was dungeons that took hours upon hours. Deep Roads and The Fade in particular. There’s dungeons in Dragon Age II. Some might take a little more than an hour but there’s nothing like Deep Roads – even if Deep Roads does indeed return!
Time to talk about story, and there will be spoilers from hereon in. One of the things I’ve seen criticised the most is Hawke’s “importance”. Some feel Hawke isn’t important. I disagree. Hawke may not be slaying an Archdemon, she isn’t closing Fade Rifts and she sure as hell isn’t saving the galaxy but she’s clearly important. It’s difficult to explain, but as Hawke, you’re not the hero. You’re a skilled warrior (or mage, or rogue) who is seeking a better life for you and your family. It just so happens that you seek that better life in a city on the brink of civil war and your rise to wealth and prominence is noted by those who run the city. You’re trapped between warring factions, and are forced into making choices. I actually like this idea.
In Origins, you could be an awful person (and you can actually kill Leliana although Bioware are really hoping you didn’t) but regardless of what you do and say, you’re the Hero of Ferelden at the end of the day. In the Mass Effect series, you could be a ruthless, sociopathic bitch who kills various people that thought of you as a friend, even shooting one in the back with the very gun he gave you as a gesture of goodwill and commit all sorts of other horrible acts. Yet, whatever you do, you’re still Commander Shepard, saviour of the galaxy. Not so much with Hawke.
Hawke Can’t Win
You can roleplay Hawke as friendly, sarcastic or ruthless. You can be a mix. It doesn’t matter. By the end of the tale, one of your companions has committed an atrocity that has sparked a war across Thedas. You have been forced into siding with mages or templars, and had to kill the leaders of both organisations in Kirkwall. You’re forced to flee Kirkwall regardless of your choices and have disappeared underground. For all the wealth and power you obtain in Kirkwall, by the end of it, you’re in a kinda worse position from where you started plus you’ve lost at least two family members. Hawke is a phenomenally important character, particularly given where Inquisition heads, but she’s not a hero. She’s not famous, but she will be infamous. And I like this!
Yes, it does kinda boil down to another lack of choice. The story is very linear and you have little direct impact on how it plays out. It comes down to taking sides but it’s a change from being the all-conquering hero and I appreciate what they were trying to do with Dragon Age II. The smaller scale is necessary for this type of story, but will come as a disappointment to those who loved the vastness of Origins as will the true lack of influence you have over the narrative.
Everything I love about Bioware games is here. The companions are all wonderful in their own way, the storyline is mostly entertaining and aside from various bugs, glitches and some gameplay-related foibles on the whole it’s a perfectly playable and enjoyable game. I dare say that the main problem people have with Dragon Age II is that it’s called Dragon Age II because it just doesn’t feel like a sequel. Having put sixty plus hours into both Origins and Inquisition, on normal difficulty, Dragon Age II was completed in half the time. I don’t doubt I lost many hours in Origins and Inquisition exploring but in both I also skipped a bunch of side-quests to advance the story. In Dragon Age II, bar three or four sidequests, I completed everything, including the DLCs and Origin shows my played time at twenty-eight hours.
If this had been classed as a standalone expansion, rebranded Dragon Age: Kirkwall (or similar) and had Bioware actually fixed up all the bugs, then I think it wouldn’t have received such harsh criticisms. That’s just my opinion though.